STAWELL - When Wayne Skinner and a mate from Stawell, one of Victoria's gold rush towns, picked a fishing spot on the Wimmera River, little did they realise they were about to strike gold.
Not gold of the 'sparkling' variety or gold of the 'large fish' variety but gold nonetheless.
Their gold of a different kind was a shy and elusive platypus casually swimming downstream.
The fishing mates were in the Greens Creek area northeast of Stawell.
The time was mid-morning which made the sighting even more unusual. Platypuses are rarely seen during the day and are more likely to be spotted during the very early morning or late evening.
Wayne said the last thing they were expecting was to see a platypus because sightings in the Wimmera River were so rare these days.
At first they thought it was a water rat but as it swam closer they realised it was a platypus. Wayne said they excitedly followed it downstream for a little while then he thought of his iPhone which he promptly turned onto video and started filming.
"In hindsight I wish I had taken a few still photos or tried to track him down a bit further and filmed him for longer," Wayne says.
"I didn't fully realise the importance of it at the time. It was so unexpected and we'll probably never see him again now - even if we keep going back to that spot."
Wayne said it was his first-ever sighting of a platypus in the Wimmera River. His mate had seen one in Mt William Creek near Pomonal, a major tributary of the Wimmera River, but that was about 30 years ago.
"It was just one of those chances in a million where we were at the right place at the right time to sight him," he says.
"You hear of people seeing them in the Wimmera River but it's not very often they've got a photo or film footage to back it up. So we were very lucky to be able to record it and show other people."
Since 2008, Melbourne-based wildlife ecologists from Cesar have been surveying for platypus on behalf of Wimmera Catchment Management Authority.
Surveys in 2008 identified what at the time was believed to be the last remaining population of platypus in one of the Wimmera River's major tributaries, the MacKenzie River. The MacKenzie River is the region's most important refuge for platypus because of excellent quality habitat and water quality.
Researchers are continuing to track the survival of this small, valuable population which endured destructive flooding of its habitat in January 2011. The population has persisted, and during cesar's most recent surveys in autumn 2012 they found two males and one female.
Wimmera CMA project manager Mark Toomey said the survey team set up nets over three nights between Lake Wartook and Distribution Heads at Laharum.
"Overall I was quite happy with the survey results which indicate some signs of recovery, although the population is still very small and therefore at risk from threats such as fire and flood or predation by foxes," Mr Toomey says.
"Female platypuses don't breed until at least four years old so with low numbers present it can take some time for a population size to increase. But all three platypuses from these surveys were in above-average condition which indicates there is plenty of food around for them."
This section of the MacKenzie River is a high priority waterway for the CMA's environmental water release program.
Mr Toomey said the ongoing regulated environmental water releases aim to mimic parts of a natural flow regime by varying releases of high and low flows as well as ceasing flow.
"This diversity of flow encourages diversity and abundance of aquatic life such as macroinvertebrates, or bugs, that are the staple diet of platypus," he said.
Mr Toomey said he is hopeful future surveys will find platypus in different sections of the Wimmera River system.
"We are always hopeful of finding platypus outside the range we have seen over the past decade or so.
"With water returning to our river system via rain plus environmental water releases from water savings as a result of completion of the Wimmera Mallee and Northern Mallee pipelines connecting areas of habitat, the chance of this happening is more likely."
Wayne Skinner's platypus footage is on the Project Platypus facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Project-Platypus-Upper-Wimmera-Landcare/220102271351064
If you spot a platypus in the Wimmera River or MacKenzie River, phone Wimmera CMA on 5382 1544 or Project Platypus 5358 4410.
This article was prepared as part of 'The Wimmera's Flowing Tale', a Wimmera CMA series that puts the spotlight on the Wimmera River and the environmental water releases that help sustain its health.